ER Death Points to Growing Wait-Time Problem

With notoriously crowded U.S. emergency rooms, chances are most American families have a story of someone waiting. It could have been half a day for a sore throat or perhaps hours for stitches or a sprained ankle.

But for 58-year-old Michael Herrara of Dallas help never came. He died of a heart attack last week an estimated 19 hours after he arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital's emergency room waiting room complaining of severe stomach pains, according to reports from WFAA News in Dallas.

Members of the Herrera family said they know they aren't alone in facing dangerously long emergency room waiting times in this country.

Emergency physicians say the problem is getting worse.

"He's not here because they let him die, pretty much," Edward Marquez, Herrara's nephew, told WFAA.

"That's awful to know that people are treated that way," he said. "If someone can be helped by this, I think he would be happy."

Representatives of Parkland Health & Hospital System said they are reviewing the case.

"It's important to also understand that, as with all emergency rooms, patients in Parkland's ER are treated based on the severity of their medical condition rather than the length of time they've waited to ensure that the most urgent cases receive proper attention," Dr. Ron J. Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Parkland Health & Hospital System wrote in a prepared press statement.

Anderson told WFAA he knew the medical team marked Herrara's symptoms as a "level 5" case, rather than the most urgent "level 1."

"This incident is a tragedy and our hearts are with the family," Anderson said. "We always strive to deliver the best care to all our patients."

Members of the American College of Emergency Physicians have long said emergency rooms across the country face a difficult problem: They want to provide the best care, but everybody is swamped.

Doctors Upset About ER Wait Time, Too

"Emergency physicians have been sounding the alarm for years that ER waiting times have been growing," said Dr. Richard O'Brien, spokesman for American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and a doctor at the Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, Pa.

In 2006, the Institute of Medicine released a report that approximately 120 million Americans -- roughly one in three Americans -- sought care in an emergency room each year.

According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, the number of emergency patient visits rose 32 percent from 1996 to 2006, but the number of hospital emergency departments decreased by 7 percent in that same time.

O'Brien said both trends -- fewer emergency rooms and more patients -- skyrocket wait times.

In 2004, the CDC reported that the average patient spent 3.3 hours in emergency department. Almost 400,000 patients waited 24 hours or more.

"Can you imagine if there was another Katrina or, God forbid, a terrorist action around the time of extraordinary hospital overcrowding," said O'Brien. "They're crowded all the time. If a building goes down, what are they going to do?"

O'Brien said in response to the growing problem, ACEP introduced a bill in both houses of Congress called The Access to Emergency Medical Services Act.

"It forces the government to study the problem ? so that we, as a country, can come to grips with it and deal with it as a country," said O'Brien.

In the meantime, many emergency room physicians are trying to stem the problem.

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